Mexico seeks more tourists — but is it safe to go?

Beautiful skies and Spanish colonial architecture are among the tourists draws to Guanajuato, Mexico.
Beautiful skies and Spanish colonial architecture are among the tourists draws to Guanajuato, Mexico. Tim Johnson / MCT

GUANAJUATO, Mexico — White beaches, colonial cities, Mayan pyramids, world-class cuisine — these are some of the obvious draws that bring 22 million foreigners to Mexico each year.

Now, Mexican tourism authorities are also highlighting some off-the-beaten-path destinations, promoting 10 "Routes of Mexico" in an advertising campaign in the United States and Canada.

The beautifully crafted ads on cable TV and in mass-market magazines show no images of another facet of the nation: the bloody war between drug cartels that's made parts of northern Mexico more akin to Afghanistan than a tranquil holiday destination.

Would-be tourists are left with a lingering question: Where is it safe to go in Mexico?

It's a question that the Mexico Tourism Board doesn't answer. Its officials say foreigners can go just about anywhere. Itineraries suggested on the website include violence-ravaged states such as Michoacan, Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango, where the U.S. State Department urges U.S. citizens to exercise "extreme caution."

McClatchy analyzed the "Routes of Mexico" using State Department travel advisories as a guide. The upshot: four of the 10 routes should be avoided and one is questionable. The other five appear safe, according to State Department guidance.

One official said it is not the board's duty to advise tourists on safety.

"Our job isn't to talk about security. Our job is to talk about the assets we have as a country," said Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, the tourism board's operating chief. "The positives vastly outweigh these kinds of very isolated situations we have in the country."

Stephen E. Austin, the executive director of market research for the board, said that "If the route is set up, it's okay to be there." He said he'd been in one of the Mexican states that the State Department considers dangerous, Michoacan, a few weeks earlier and that the warning is overblown. "Michoacan has a very high end tourism product, by the way, very high end."

For those considering a trip to Mexico, it's advisable to read the State Department's constantly updated travel advisories about Mexico. It's also a good idea to do an Internet news search about violence in and around a specific destination.

"Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year," said a State Department warning dated July 16. It notes that roughly a million Americans live in Mexico, and that resort and tourist destinations don't see the violence of border areas or drug trafficking corridors.

However, it adds that more than 22,700 people have been killed in drug-related violence since late 2006, and that gunfights are a feature of streets in a number of cities. Drug traffickers have "kidnapped guests out of reputable hotels" in the bustling city of Monterrey, it adds, and drug-related murders climbed tenfold in Durango in recent years.

Mexico has reason to safeguard its tourism industry by downplaying violence. Tourism is the nation's third-largest source of revenue, and it generates one out of every 7.7 jobs in Mexico.

The 10 "Routes of Mexico" advertising campaign began July 12 in U.S. markets and is designed to educate tourists that Mexico is far richer in possible destinations than they realize. The slogan is, "The place you thought you knew."

The campaign seeks to draw tourists with special interests in activities such as wine drinking, bird watching, adventure travel, gastronomy and visiting colonial and historical sites.

With the caveat that Mexico's security situation changes weekly, here's a brief safety review of the 10 routes promoted by Mexico, based on recent news reports and the State Department warnings. The rating uses green, cautionary yellow and a "don't-go" red, and errs on the side of caution.

Wine country and the aquarium of the world: This route traverses from Tijuana down the Baja California peninsula. Tijuana is the site of extensive drug-related violence, but the farther one travels away, the safer it gets. YELLOW.

The millenary Tarahumaras: This route takes tourists through remote areas of two of Mexico's most violence-ridden states, Chihuahua and Sinaloa. RED.

Magic of traditions and nature: Tourists visit colonial Morelia in Michoacan state, travel through rural areas and end up in Acapulco in Guerrero state. The State Department urges Americans to avoid all unnecessary travel to Michoacan. Acapulco was the site of a daylight shootout between police and drug traffickers in the hotel zone on April 14 that left three people dead. RED.

Birthplace of history and romanticism: This route takes tourists to some of the most beautiful and quaint colonial cities in Guanajuato, Queretaro and Jalisco. GREEN.

Art of tequila and music under the sol: Following this route through Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima brings tourists to Guadalajara, through volcanic landscapes and fields of agave, from which tequila is made. Nayarit has seen an increase in violence, but the route avoids the capital of Tepic, where much of it has occurred. GREEN.

The Huastecas and their outstanding beauty: This route traverses Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi states along the Gulf of Mexico. If you cut out Tamaulipas state, where beheadings and kidnappings have been intense, the route may be GREEN, but including Tamaulipas makes it RED.

Thousand flavors of mole, a blend of unsweetened chocolate, dried chili peppers and spices: Tourists on a gastronomic quest for this national dish visit Mexico City, and the states of Tlaxcala, Puebla and Oaxaca. GREEN.

Mystery and origin of the Mayan culture: This route takes travelers across Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and the Yucatan to visit Mayan ruins. GREEN.

Colonial experience: Tourists plunge into history by visiting colonial cities that played a role in wars of independence or revolution. The route traverses Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Jalisco and San Luis Potosi. GREEN.

Encounter between history and modern day: This lengthy route takes tourists to major cities in some of Mexico's most violent states: Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Sonora. Eighteen people were killed at a July 18 birthday party in Torreon, the largest city in Coahuila. A prison warden let the assailants out of jail to do the killing. In Durango, eight severed heads were left strewn around the state one morning in late July. Enough said. RED.


State Department Travel Warning on Mexico

Mexico Tourism Board's website on destinations


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Deaths in Mexico's drug war pass 22,000, but who's counting?

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